Most of the vegetables piled in the produce section of the supermarket have been carefully selected, and can be sold to consumers only because they’ve met strict aesthetic criteria. I’ve heard that choosing ‘ugly’ vegetables over perfect ones is a small yet effective way to reduce food waste, and it probably would be, except that the really ugly vegetables (though I hate to call them that when they’re just different) never make it to the supermarket. They are sorted in factories that use incredibly advanced scanning technology to detect any defects.
British photographer Tim Smyth has just published a new book called “Defective Carrots” that demonstrates how discerning this scanning technology is. The book contains 56 photographs of ‘optically deficient’ carrots that are deemed unfit for consumer consumption at a sorting farm in north Yorkshire. The scanner, which is called Focus, measures each carrot live on-screen as it rushes by on a high-speed conveyor belt, and rejects it if it doesn’t meet the pencil-straight standards for sellable carrots. In the U.K., this means 10 to 20 percent of all carrots.
The rejects are fascinating to look at. While some of the carrots are extremely distorted and bizarre-looking, others may be off by only one degree. Some have black fungal growth, are split down the middle, have daintily crossed ‘legs,’ and strike oddly human-like poses. These carrots suffer from deformities called “fanging” and “scabbing,” as described in the Focus manual. All are striking, beautiful, and captivating in an eerie sort of way. “Many people have told me these carrots are erotic,” Smyth told Co.Design.
These carrots are also a sad reminder of how removed consumers are from food production, now that most people no longer grow their own food or pull alien-like vegetables out of the dirt firsthand. We’ve become so accustomed to eating the picture-perfect produce that shows up on supermarket shelves that we hardly stop to think about what goes on behind the scenes to make it that way. A defective carrot is no less nutritious than a deformed carrot, and yet the latter gets tossed into the animal trough.
I wonder what came first – consumers that demanded perfectly straight carrots, or farms that supplied only ‘beautiful’ carrots so that consumers became accustomed to them? As a shopper, I can understand the desire to choose a perfect carrot over a deformed one if they cost the same, since a strange shape is harder to peel and chop, but that doesn’t mean I never want to see an unusual carrot. (I actually do get a lot of strange vegetables through my CSA program, so I’m used to intertwined carrot legs.)
Why don’t more supermarkets sell ugly vegetables at slightly reduced prices? It could make nutritious produce more accessible to lower-income families and give shoppers the option to reduce food waste. Fortunately there is movement in this direction, though it’s mostly in Europe. Hopefully, we’ll see unconventional-looking produce on the shelves in North America before long, although for that to be viable, consumers must be willing to buy it.